Thursday, May 07, 2015

the rapture and the Bible

For the last few weeks, a group of us at Grace have been working our way through a DVD study led by a New Testament scholar and retired Church of England Bishop, N. T. Wright,  called Surprised by Hope. The six-session study focuses on topics like the resurrection, heaven, Jesus' second coming, and more, which have led, each week, to really fun discussions on these and other related topics (like Hell, new heavens and new earth, and the "rapture").

It's the last of these I wanted to write a bit about, because there's a lot of confusion here. (If you live outside of the US, you might be confused just by the term, since churches around the world don't usually ever talk about a rapture.) Many of us have been taught an awful lot about the rapture, but I've discovered over the years that most of what I was told growing up simply doesn't fit in with the scriptures. So, the big question is: what does the Bible have to say about the rapture?

Let's take a look, and see what we see.
  1. The first thing to notice is that, if you check any concordance you'll find that the term "rapture" isn't in there. Check the King James, the NRSV, the NIV, the New Living Translation, whatever you want: it's not there. That's a non-biblical term someone came up with to name an event they thought they were finding in the Bible. Ok, but what about the event?
  2. The book of Revelation, the place most Christians would look for insight into the 'end times', 'last days', end of the world, however you want to describe it - Revelation doesn't describe any rapture. There's a moment (4:1) when a voice from heaven says "Come up here," but that's simply John's invitation to enter heaven and receive his vision of the throne of God, the seals, and the lamb (see Revelation chapters 4 and 5). There's also a statement to one church that Christ will "keep you from the hour of trial that is coming..." (3:10), but that doesn't imply any kind of evacuation (see John 17:15, for a clear example, which uses the same Greek word for "keep" or "protect"). You can look anywhere else in Revelation, and you won't find any description of God rescuing believers from the earth before a time of "tribulation." It's just not in there.
  3. The popular Left Behind book series, which is built around the idea of the rapture and subsequent tribulation, takes its title from Matthew 24. This chapter describes "the coming of the Son of Man," when "two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left" (24:40-41). Those who are taken, people assume, are raptured, and those others are 'left behind' to suffer through the tribulation. (For example, listen to Larry Norman's song or the popular cover by DC Talk, "I Wish We'd All Been Ready.") However, if you read the other verses there in Matthew 24, that's clearly not what's going on: For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left... (Matt 24:36-40) The comparison with the flood in Genesis makes it pretty that you don't want to be "taken." People were taken when "the flood came and swept them all away." Noah and his family were the ones "left" after the flood, the only survivors. In other words, in Matthew 24, you want to be left behind. That means you aren't utterly destroyed. So, being "taken" here isn't referring to the righteous being delivered; it's about the destruction of the wicked.
  4. The other verses most often associated with the rapture, as far as I know, are in 1 Thessalonians 4. Here Paul talks about "we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord" (4:15), "the sound of God's trumpet" (16), "the dead in Christ" rising (16), and those "who are left" being "caught up in the clouds together... to meet Christ in the air" (17). Some pretty familiar phrases - the popular hymn "Midnight Cry" is based in-part on this passage. But what is not here is an indication that those believers "caught up in the clouds" with Christ are leaving behind non-believers who will suffer through a tribulation, or anything of that sort. Instead, Paul seems to be describing the general resurrection of the "last day" (as in John 11:24), when Jesus comes "to judge the quick and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end," as we say in the Creed. Nothing in this passage suggests a Left Behind-style rapture scenario. 
Many will tie the "rapture" to 1 Thess 4, like does here.

We started by asking, What does the Bible have to say about the rapture? To me, it seems that the answer is... not very much. The verses that people talk about the most in relation to a 'rapture' only really read that way if you force that interpretation on them (or maybe take them out of their contexts). And if these verses don't tell us about a rapture, what verses do? And if we can't find the Bible talking about it, then why are we?

The concept of the rapture wasn't really established until the 1830s, by a man named Darby. There's a reason that no one in Church history believed in such a thing for the first 1800 years - it's pretty hard to find this idea in the Bible. And though it's frequently taught in churches, there are still many today who can't find it in the Bible. Craig Keener, an evangelical New Testament scholar, has said about the rapture, "I am reasonably certain that today the majority of evangelical biblical scholars (as well as virtually all other Christian biblical scholars) reject it." Those bright people who read and study the Bible as thoroughly as they can, talk with other experts about it, and read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic for a living, those people don't see the rapture in there.

I don't have all the answers about Jesus's return, the resurrection of the dead, or what happens when God makes all things new and the old passes away (Isa 65:17; Rev 21:1, 5). I believe in these things. I have ideas about them, scriptures that I lean on - but I see through a glass, dimly. I haven't got all the answers.
But the rapture is one answer that I was told through all my years growing up that I don't believe is much of an answer at all anymore. I don't see it in the Bible, and I don't see what it would have to do with God's plans for the world anyways. And did I mention that I don't see it in the Bible?
I think we can have hope and be encouraged by what we await from Jesus; I don't want people to be uniformed about that (see 1 Thess 4:13, 18)... but that's exactly why I don't teach the rapture.


For another, nice piece that covers a lot of the same ground, see this article by Catholic apologist and Bible scholar John Martignoni.